Some tech workers over 50 are literally working themselves to death — and other things we discovered about their careers

There’s no question the tech industry is filled with satisfying, high paying jobs. But a career in tech comes with a deadline of sorts.

After you turn 50, you’ll likely find yourself struggling for job security and respect.

In tech these days, people in their 20’s are worshiped. “Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg infamously said back in 2007.

People in their 30’s are tolerated. “Don’t fund anyone over 30” was the unwritten VC rule back in 2007, too.

Tech workers in their 40’s are starting to look over their shoulder. (A group at Google called ‘Greyglers’ is for Google employees over 40.)

As for people in their 50’s? Many are under tremendous stress. And those in their 60s and older are very hard to find. Even CEOs over a certain age face a constant stream of when-are-you-going-retire questions.

Business Insider talked to a handful of men and women over 50 who have collectively worked at companies like Amazon, Dell, Google, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, VMware, and others to hear their stories of what the tech industry is like for them today. Most of them asked us to keep their identities and employers’ names hidden as they weren’t authorized to talk to us.

Some had recently retired. Some had been laid off. Some were still working, but under threat of layoffs. Some were thriving in senior or middle management positions. One had jumped to a startup. And one had actually retired for a few years and then come back to the workforce in a senior tech role at a major tech company — at age 58.

Ageism everywhere

Almost all of the people we spoke with said they had directly experienced ageism at their jobs after they turned 50.

google internship movie

One said he even had to inflict it. He was a former manager at a huge global tech company that had multiple rounds of layoffs.

“There’s definitely age discrimination,” he told us. When it came time for him and other managers to choose employees for pink slips, “age is one of the decision points.”

Another 55-year-old, who was recently laid off from his senior management position at a major tech company, agrees.

He told us, “Sooner or later, your corporation will get rid of you, not because you’re old, but because they are concerned what kind of face they put in front of their clients,” he said.

“They want to be thought of as youthful, to look progressive, and they won’t put a guy out there who is 60 years old. I know it’s stupid, but you would be surprised how many people think like that.”

The case against ageism

Firing people just because of their age is illegal, says labor lawyer Kelly Dermody at firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco.

Kelly DermodyLawyer Kelly Dermody, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLPBusinesswire/Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein

Age discrimination is a hard thing to prove, but an increasing number of Californians, the home of Silicon Valley, are trying.

In 2012, across all industries, there were 3,488 age discrimination employment complaints filed with California’s Department of Fair Housing and Employment.

In 2014, age complaints jumped to 4,510.

“What’s happening in the tech sector is a general trend toward youth,” Dermody tells us.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Salesforce have young work forces. Google’s median age based on data from 2014 is the ripe old age of 30. (See chart on median employee age from salary analyst PayScale, below).

“At some Silicon Valley companies, the top executives are explicit in their preference for workers under 35,” she says.

The youth-loving culture is having an effect. Older workers are getting left out — or at least feel like they are. “There are tons and tons of lawsuits filed for age discrimination,” Dermody says.

More Californians these days are suing for alleged age discrimination than for alleged racism, she says.

“In California in the last couple of years, age claims as a percentage of claims within the state agency have been much higher. They are leading out claims of race,” she says.

BI_Graphics How old are the employees at top tech companies 1BI Graphics/Mike Nudelman via PayScale

Killing yourself to keep a job

One 63-year-old IT worker we spoke with is three years away from retirement, with kids still in college. He’s working for a major US tech firm that has had layoffs in recent years.

He’s the last one standing from his former department after all of his co-workers were laid off or quit for other jobs.

He survived the layoffs because he’s “in a little niche” with some specific programming/networking IT skills that the company is contractually required to provide to certain customers.

Heart AttackShutterstock

He also survived because he’s been constantly updating his tech skills, learning all the latest new tech, as well as knowing the older stuff. So he’s become a jack of all trades.

“A lot of people get tied into working on a customer account and the routine for the account. And once the account contract is over, they’re gone,” he says.

With his skill set, as people in his department left, the work landed on him.

“I went from 15 projects at one time to 50 projects on my plate, no two the same. Personally, I’m getting kudos from management for taking leadership. But it still ticks me off seeing what’s going on around me. ”

But there’s a been huge cost to him. He’s had two heart attacks, and he says the second one came after working for 38 hours straight.

Why doesn’t he quit for a new job? Offers are slim for a guy his age and he can’t relocate. He’s taking care of his elderly parents who live nearby.

“What choice do I have?” he tells us.

The skills quagmire

One big problem with older workers is that they fall into a trap where their skills get outdated over time, many of them told us. They do a project and gain expertise, which leads to more similar projects, then leadership positions in the field, until they become experts in that one field — and no others.

And then, as happens in many industries but particularly high-tech, that field falls out of favor. Instead of being retrained in the hottest tech stuff, they often wind up with pink slips.

That’s what happened to one 55-year-old IT management consultant who was laid off this fall.

He was a high-paid senior director when his company cut him and his whole team.

He’s not bitter. The consultant in him looks back and sees what he did wrong. He was an expert in supply-chain management — that is, helping companies save money on stuff they have to buy from vendors.

That was a consulting field that was trendy a few years ago. But today, the big trends in consulting are helping companies write mobile apps, move their tech from their own data centers to the cloud, and doing big-data analysis projects.

“A company that would have gladly employed me five years ago, they will tell me today that ‘We are not investing in your area any more,'” he told us.

Now he’s back in school studying the hot new thing, data science. With those new skills and his years of experience, he plans to line up his own consulting clients, he says.

Game design programmers classFlickr/Vancouver Film School

“In the tech industry, very few people last in a job more than two years. You have to be prepared, mentally, financially, and skill wise to keep changing jobs,” he says adding that tech workers over 50 should ultimately be ready to go it alone.

“Prepare yourself to become an independent contractor. Don’t take it personally. This is how corporations behave now. It sucks, but this is reality and there’s nothing we can do about it.” he says.

The successful over-50 workers we talked to, who didn’t get laid off and are still working in senior management positions, all offered similar advice: New skills, new skills, new skills.

They advise all tech workers to spend time playing with the new stuff and building up a personal resume, whether it’s writing a mobile app with the newest language, dinking with a DYI hardware project, or learning about other new tech.

“I always maintained my intellectual curiosity and my broader love of tech,” says a 59-year-old who left retirement about a year ago to become a senior vice president at a growing tech company.

“If you’ve lost it, rekindle it as a way to be able to take on other things and to show employers you can take on other things.”

Even tougher for older women

When it comes to being a woman over 50, things can be even scarier.

One woman we interviewed was a product manager for several huge Silicon Valley firms for decades. When a relative called her and asked her to do a startup with him, she almost turned him down.

If it failed, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get another job, she told us. Ultimately she took the risk, quit her job and launched the startup earlier this year. But the process took more thought than it would have for, say, an engineer in his 20s.

Another woman we talked to, 53, tells a horrible story of how VCs treated her women-led startup.

This woman has a spectacular resume. She’s worked on everything from rocket science to being an exec for an IT consulting company that quadrupled its revenue to $1 billion under her direction.

She left that senior management job to do a startup with two other women, a CEO in her early 60’s and a COO also in her 50’s. The CEO had been running a successful education company and wanted to spin-out the online unit into its own startup.

But when the women tried to raise funding, the VCs turned them down flat. Some of them were blatant about their ageism and sexism, too.Meg WhitmanMeg Whitman, 59, is CEO of HP.Rick Wilking/Reuters

“They told us, you’re a double whammy. You’re three women cofounders and you’re all in your 50’s or older, not a startup being run by a 20-something guy. They were blatant about it. They didn’t pull any punches. They weren’t trying to hide their reasons for saying no, or be subtle,” this person told us.

In the end, the CEO didn’t raise the money and shut down the startup.

The 53-year-old IT consultant went back to the corporate world, taking a job for an iconic Silicon Valley company.

As a woman in tech, she shrugs off that experience and has not been deterred by it, she says.

She’s been fighting, and winning, this kind of thing her whole career, she says. As a young woman it was almost worse, she says. She was constantly being told she was too young (or too young looking) to get choice assignments or promotions. That didn’t stop her either.

“I had to fight for it,” she said. “I had to be assertive. I had to raise my hand a couple of times and say, ‘I want a chance to do that!'”

She still thinks she’ll do another startup one day, but won’t do it if she has to depend on VC money to get it going.

“I’m going to retire in a couple of years. My plan is to be out at 55. I might do some startup stuff, something of my own,” she says. “The VCs’ negativity wouldn’t stop me.”

The glass ceiling of respect

Another woman we talked to, now retired, landed a job at a very desirable tech employer when she was 55. She had made a name for herself at a big, iconic Valley hardware company, where her age had worked in her favor, and was poached away.

“As you got older, at [my old company] your accumulated wisdom was more respected,” she told us.

Google GlassYouTube

She hit culture-shocked at her new employer, a company where the median worker age was about 30, and where the company “valued energy and unique ideas more than it valued what I’ll label as ‘wisdom,'” she told us.

While no one made snide age-related remarks to her, and she liked the work, her younger co-workers didn’t want to listen to her feedback or ideas.

They started to view her as “a party pooper if I’d say I’d ‘been there, done that’ and that their idea doesn’t work. People didn’t take it well,” she said. After a while, she simply stopped sharing her experience and gave up on the idea of climbing high in this company.

“I ended up realizing that what it would take to get ahead was both physical and emotional energy. I had plenty of physical energy, but had trouble getting the emotional energy. The way I looked at it, they were paying me nicely. I’m happy with the work I’m doing. I’m going to stay at this level,” she said.

The secret benefit of getting older

Despite all the stress that many older tech workers feel, getting older isn’t an automatic kiss of death for a tech career, successful ones tell us.

We talked to a couple of people who were thriving.

One benefit of getting older is that you have a vast network of people throughout the industry.

You also understand office politics and can work them to your benefit.

One example is Peter Greulich, who worked for IBM for 30 years and retired from the company in 2011, and wrote a book about his experience called “A View from Beneath the Dancing Elephant.”

In it, he tells the story of how he was about to be laid off and narrowly escaped it by working all his many contacts inside IBM until he found a manager to hire him.  Google GreyglerGreygler is an actual common term referring to older Googlers. Here’s one of the oldest and best-known Googlers, Vint Cerf.Google

From that experience, he learned that “the responsibility was on me for 30 years in my career to always train myself for my next job,” he told Business Insider.

He sought out projects that would allow him to move inside the company, doing everything from marketing to sales to product management to technical roles. He learned to read the tea leaves and jump to new jobs.

Another successful older worker we talked is 58 today, and landed at a startup a few years ago after spending decades at a global tech firm.

He says the biggest mistake he sees from other older workers is ignoring their network until its too late and they’ve already lost their jobs.

He told us he made the same mistake.

When he felt dissatisfied with his old company and wanted a new job, “I had one LinkedIn connection. I didn’t know what LinkedIn was.” He studied up and “now I have almost 1,000.”

And he brushed up on everything else to make himself more current, too.

“I have a Galaxy Note, I have an iPhone, a Twitter account. I have Facebook, I’m even on on Google+. I delve into the tech as much as I can,” he adds.

The upshot is, tech workers need to understand that they’ll be fighting the perception of being “outdated” as their careers mature.

As long as they can show that they are masters of the new stuff as well as the old, ageism will be more like an annoying fly, something to swat away, than a deadly virus.

Says the guy who ditched retirement to go back to work:

“If you have the energy, passion, and desire to change the world, then doing exciting things in tech in your 50s or even in your 60s is possible. Don’t be afraid. You can bridge the gap.”

by Julie Bort

Some tech workers over 50 are literally working themselves to death — and other things we discovered about their careers